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Analysis & Opinion
13.02.09 Labor In Limbo
By Roland Oliphant

A report released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch details the dangers and abuses faced by immigrant construction workers in Russia on a day to day basis. The findings – that migrant laborers are victims of human trafficking, are often forced to work without being paid by unscrupulous employers, and receive abuse rather than support from the police – will surprise few. But this study was carried out during Russia's construction boom. With the collapse of the building industry following the onset of the global financial crisis, conditions for Russia's many guest workers are likely to deteriorate even further.

The study was far from scientific – the report's authors spoke to just 140 workers across Russia, a tiny sample of the several million estimated to be in the country. Nonetheless, it provides a compelling glimpse into the lives of Russia's guest workers. And though the pattern of consistent illegality and violation of workers' rights that it tells is hardly revelatory, it reflects a reality that most people in Russia are aware of, even if they do not experience it directly. It also provides an instructive guide to the technicalities that policy makers must grapple with.

Estimates of the number of migrant workers in Russia vary, but there is no denying that they make up a significant proportion of the population at any given time. The HRW report cites both the Federal Migration Service's estimate of between seven and nine million – which would account for perhaps five percent of the national population by the 2005 census – and a somewhat lower estimate of three to four million from the Russian Academy of Sciences (in the population centers where migrants are concentrated those numbers increase significantly. Some estimates put the number of guest workers in Moscow at two million. The official population is around thirteen million). Most are men from the former Soviet Republics between the ages of 19 and 39 who work seasonally – for six or nine months a year – in construction and unskilled trades: the ubiquitous "gastarbeiters" who in Moscow can be seen clearing snow or being shaken down by police at metro stations.

The report rightly notes the importance of these migrants for both economic and demographic purposes. Before the current financial crisis hit Russia, some experts were arguing that as many as 20 million guest workers were needed to fill vacancies and balance Russia's shrinking population. Recognition of the benefits of migrant labor was reflected by the relaxation of visa rules in January of 2007, which made it simpler to obtain registration and a work permits.

Immigration experts almost unanimously agree that the 2007 laws were a positive change. Most significantly, they allowed immigrants to obtain a work permit without already having employment. That broke a dependency on employers for legal status that left workers open to abuse. "It is important to give credit to the 2007 laws," said Marina Manke of the International Organization for Migration, an inter-governmental agency. Maria Lisitya of HRW called the changes "welcome."

Legislative gaps remain, however. The three day period for registration is prohibitively short, meaning that many migrants, rather than miss the deadline, will turn to intermediaries who provide registration at a false, or sometime nonexistent, address (that may be enough to flash to a bored police officer on the metro, unless he actually bothers to check). Work permits are often issued late.

And though the 2007 laws reduced dependency on employers, they did not break it altogether. Work permits expire after 90 days unless a worker concludes a contract with an employer. If an employer refuses to sign a contract with workers it makes them "irregular" – HRW's term for what others would call "illegal" – and hence more vulnerable to further exploitation (that means having one's passport confiscated, not being paid, and effectively working as a forced laborer). Then there's health insurance, which depends on employers paying contributions for each employee. Without a formal contract, migrants have no access to medical care in the event of accident. Nor will Rostrud, the federal work and employment service, investigate labor disputes unless there is a contract. "A contract is absolutely essential under legislation, but we found that almost all migrants work without one," said Lisitya.

"That is not unique to Russia, it is typical of any country where both sides have an incentive not to legalize the relationship because the employer has the possibility to pay cheaper wages and the employee earns a higher salary avoids taxes," said Manke, whose organization has been preparing its own report on the issue. "But this area of migrants working without contracts is a huge area requiring further work, and the government acknowledges that."

It is a difficult area to grapple with. HRW's report writers, who met twice with the Federal Migration Service, "hope" that the liberalization marked by the 2007 laws was not a one-off. They want the government to introduce an "efficient and effective" complaint mechanism regardless of a worker's legal status, rigorous investigation of abusive employers, enforcement of the contract laws, and regulation of intermediaries like employment agencies. According to Lisitya much of this is a matter of implementing existing laws, but some will require new legislation.

But even the report's authors admit that it will be politically difficult for the government to be seen as protecting the rights of "irregular" immigrants at a time of economic difficulty. "The climate is very difficult," said Lisitya. "But that makes it all the more important for the government to be seen to take a stand. Otherwise the crisis will become an opportunity to blame migrants for problems rather than trying to help them."

The research, carried out in ten months of 2008 and using stories going back to 2007 and 2006, was by Lisitsya's own account "during the construction boom." The report's authors singled out construction because, as they put it, "some 40.8 percent of foreign work permits issued in 2006 were for jobs in the construction sector." In other words, of all the sectors of Russia's booming economy it was construction that employed the greatest numbers of migrant laborers. That sector, which was largely reliant on investors and the availability of credit, has been hurt more than most by the crisis.

The "boom" is now over, and the rise of anti-immigration immigrant rhetoric, as well as the number of racist attacks, has been well reported. But the actual affect on immigration and the lives of migrants is not yet clear. Manke at the IOM says there has been some slow down in the flow of foreign workers, but that this could well be explained by seasonal fluctuations. The authors of the HRW report venture only the almost tautological opinion that the kinds of abuses recorded during the boom will get worse in the slowdown. To venture anything further would be total speculation.

"Demand for all kinds of labor is going to fall," said Manke. "The question is to what extent demand for low qualified labor drops. And then there's the question of how high wages will have to rise for Russian workers to consider filling the gap left by the migrants if they leave."
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